Efficiency; what efficiency? A question from a detached youth work conference. Graeme Tiffany ponders?

Adding further fuel to our debate about where things are up to, Graeme Tiffany reflects, following the Federation for Detached Youth Work’s conference, on the contradiction of allegedly ‘becoming more efficient’.

Held in North Wales, with the much-welcomed support of the Welsh Government, the venue was Pontins’ Prestatyn Sands Holiday Park. While it was chosen, frankly, for its cheapness, many delegates recognised that this venue meant that they were in close proximity not only to regular holiday-makers for whom this might be their only break of the year, but also to a workforce typically representative of the working poor. Worse still, nigh all of these members of staff were working their last weekend, having been told that their services were no longer required. With no little sense of irony, delegates mused on the parallels with their plight, given they too are impacted on by new models of part-time, temporary, minimum wage, and short-term contract-based models of detached youth work foisted on them in the name of becoming a ‘flexible, nimble, agile, and economically efficient’ workforce. How these words have been abused by those who equate efficiency only with cost-savings!

The detached youth worker is, or should be, the first, and last, in line. Being present they can head off a crisis in hours, saving a fortune in grief and money in the long-term. It means also they are present when that young person has a dip (think ‘yo-yo’ not linearity when it comes to inclusion – exclusion). And they’re present again when those who’ve been supported become, with the confidence of their own experience, the ones to ‘signpost’ their peers (rather than the multiplicity of ‘services’ who prefer this to getting their own hands dirty). And then, and finally, they are the last in line, when such services have cast folk aside. Here it’s about dignity not economy; dead they’d be cheaper. Watch as economic incentivisation works its magic, or ‘time-limited recovery’ bears fruit. Or not, as the case will be.

Austerity is the rationale, and cuts the medicine. But what of the effect on young people and the practices of detached youth work (increasingly tasked to sort out the fallout and contribute to a solution)? In the first instance, there’s the emergence of a new form of ‘graduate entry’, but rather than this being to the workplace, it’s to the dole queue. The lucky few within this group create unlucky others as they squeeze out a swathe of lesser qualified young people from the traditional entry level jobs that gave them the hope that a reasonable future was possible. Forced then to endure an endless round of visits to not one but often several ‘employability initiatives’, at best they are supported in ‘pimping’ their CVs. At least the engagement figures look good; remember, its presentation that counts.

While many detached youth workers are drawn into this activating agenda, yet others are moved to the environments where the fallout occurs: the school, the home, and sites of anti-social behaviour. This might explain to some extent why the numbers of delegates were a few down on previous years; the Federation had had contact with those who attended before. They explained that the focus of their work had shifted to these ‘new’ agendas and managers now asserted that networking and training with the detached youth work community was no longer necessary. For others, there was, simply, no funding to support their participation. This leaves a third group; those now unemployed themselves, having lost their jobs because of ‘restructuring’, ‘rationalisation’ or ‘down-sizing’; the youth service often having been the first to go. We can say then the label ‘detached youth worker’ is less and less common, as services are refashioned.

Follow Graeme’s textured argument on his blog.

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